All organisations have values that can be seen in the way they do their work and the conduct of their staff whether they are written down or not. In the public sector all employees are expected to serve the public interest. For public sector employees to know whether their decisions and behaviour are in the public interest they need a set of guiding values.
The values that are expected to underpin the work of public sector organisations are the basic professional standards or ethics of public service. These may not be the same as an individual's personal values or ethics or those of another profession. They focus on two essential concepts:

  • impartiality – best demonstrated by the principle of merit-based decision-making,
  • public accountability – which can be seen in the practices of transparency, honesty, record-keeping and financial stewardship.

These values should be evident in the culture of a public agency. Many agencies also endorse other values, such as respect, excellence and consumer service, that support the particular work that they do.

The role of values in corruption prevention

The laws, policies, codes, directives and other written regulations that apply to the public sector will never cover every situation that a public official faces and it is not practical to do so. Every member of an agency's staff has different personal values and without an explicit set of organisational values to guide them they may reach different conclusions about the right action to take in a particular situation.

By developing and communicating an explicit set of organisational values an agency can encourage consistent decision-making and appropriate resolution of ethical dilemmas even when there are no rules to follow.

Applying the values

Statements of values can be stand-alone documents or incorporated into an agency's code of conduct. Regardless of how they are presented, these values must be evident in the life of the agency.

An organisation's stated values will only be useful if they make sense to the employees who are expected to apply them. This is a responsibility of the agency's management staff who should promote the values and make sure that they are applied in the agency's work.

Values can be integrated into the agency's work by referring to them in performance agreements and in corporate reviews, for example by making "consistency with values" a criterion in periodic reviews of your agency's policies and procedures.

Case studies

Case study 1: Accepting public sector values and standards

In 1992 an ICAC investigation found that a major NSW government sludge management tender process worth tens of millions of dollars had been improperly managed. The conduct of one of the responsible officers was described in the report as "a litany of how not to behave during a tender process". He was found to be biased towards one of the tenderers with whom he had frequent contact and provided assistance with tender documents. He was also responsible for a research project which involved the particular technology that he was required to assess as part of the various tender evaluation processes and was evidently biased towards the use of this technology. There was evidence that even after the impropriety of his conduct had been brought to his attention, he failed to accept that he should not have been involved in any way with the tender evaluations. The ICAC found that the staff involved in the tender lacked an understanding of proper standards of behaviour, especially as they related to tender processes and recommended a major education program for all staff, covering proper procedures and appropriate standards of conduct.

Case study 2: Awareness of public sector values

In 1992 the ICAC reported on its investigation into the unlawful accessing and dissemination of official information (for payment or otherwise) belonging to public authorities. The investigation disclosed a massive illicit trade in government information. More than 150 people were found to have engaged in corrupt conduct, and 101 persons found to have engaged in conduct liable to allow, encourage or cause the occurrence of corrupt conduct. Known payments to officials in one agency alone ran into several hundred thousand dollars.

However, not all of the public officials who improperly released information to private inquiry agents were paid for their services. The ICAC reported that "not all of them realised they were doing wrong. Some were motivated by a naive belief that private investigators and the police are always working towards the one end. Many were simply responding to misguided notions of mateship." In other cases public officials were "genuinely unaware of what they can properly disclose, and to whom they may disclose it."

At the time of this investigation there was no settled policy or standardised procedure governing the protection of personal data. In this situation the underlying values of public service were lost. The ICAC concluded that while "Inadequacies in policy, practice and security ... all contributed to the development of the corrupt trade ... The direct cause, however, has been a failure by public officials to comply with the required standards of honesty and impartiality."

Case study 3: Integrating values into the workplace

In 2001–02 the ICAC investigated allegations relating to the conduct of officers and students at a NSW university. A graduate advisor was found to have corruptly accessed computerised academic transcripts and altered subject results in return for corrupt payments. The report of the investigation noted that the university had a code of conduct but there was evidence that staff had not incorporated the code into their day-to-day work. The ICAC has found that, while staff should take personal responsibility for following their code, management commitment to and continued promotion of a code is crucial to its success. Training and awareness programs, both at induction and periodically after that, were recommended so that the code, and the values it promotes, becomes a point of reference when policies and procedures are reviewed.

Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between a code of conduct and a code of ethics or values?

Organisations commonly develop codes of conduct to tell people inside and outside the organisation the standards of conduct that are expected of staff and that the organisation will observe in dealing with the public. The code should describe what a public official should do, or not do, in specific situations. 

Ethics or values are the principles that codes of conduct and other corporate policies are based on. They are more like goals that employees are expected to aspire to rather than rules to be enforced. Some codes of conduct combine the two by including a statement of the organisation's values as an introduction to the code. This is logical because a code is essentially an application of the values to the organisation's day-to-day work. 

How are public sector employees expected to use the organisation's values to do the right thing?

Codes that state the values or ethics that underpin the way an organisation works can be particularly useful when employees are faced with ethical dilemmas that are not addressed in any standard rules, codes or policies. Ideally, dilemmas would be discussed with a more senior member of staff or designated ethics officer to work out the best course of action in the light of the stated ethical values. Statements of values can also be helpful to public officials whose roles require them to exercise official discretion in the course of their work.

Why should my agency have stated values or ethics when we employ people who have good personal values?

Some people base their personal values on religious beliefs, cultural customs or philosophical traditions. Others adapt their values to fit in with the majority of people around them. It cannot be assumed that people who adhere to a clear set of personal values will necessarily apply the professional values and standards required of them. Personal values may overlap with public interest values and standards, but they may not. What is important is that, if these sets of values and standards of behaviour come into conflict in the workplace, employees understand that they are obliged to follow the professional standards expected of their role.

Aren't values statements just empty rhetoric?

Corporate values can be worthless and encourage cynicism among staff if they are not genuinely applied in the agency. If employees know that these standards of behaviour are expected of them, and that they are taken seriously by the agency's managers, then everyone is more likely to apply them.

To find out if your agency's values are meaningful and relevant, consider reviewing them by surveying staff about their awareness of the values and how much they refer to them in their work. It is a useful test of the agency's values to ask staff as well as clients, contractors and suppliers about their perceptions of the values that underpin the agency's culture.

If you are a manager and find your agency's values are irrelevant or meaningless then take action to have them reviewed or changed.


 Related topics on the ICAC website